Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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Critical theory

core definition

Critical theory is the name that is given to the way of analysing the social and cultural world, which was developed at the Frankfurt School, that, at root, embodies a Marxist perspective.

explanatory context

Disillusioned with ‘orthodox Marxism’, critical theory adopted a more humanist Marxist perspective. It did this in two related ways.


First, it concentrated on what were seen as Marx’s more humanist works and focused particularly the concept of alienation.


Second, it attempted to integrate aspects of psychoanalytic theory into its neo-Marxist critique.


There are several different emphases within critical theory reflecting the emphases the key figures accorded alienation and psychoanalysis. These figures include Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse and Habermas.


Critical theory is an interdisciplinary approach that attempts to link theory with revolutionary practice (praxis).


The programme of critical theory was directly related to a dialectical method of critique, which, it was intended, should ‘revealing incompleteness where completeness is claimed’, i.e., reveal the underlying nature of the social world.


Critical theory (like Marx) takes the view that society is a totality continuously restructuring itself with an ever-present tension between the ‘object as known’ and the ‘object’s actuality and development’. Critical theory examines and assesses this tension. Arguably, this is, in effect, the tension between consciousness and being.


Critical theory accepts that material human existence is the ground or foundation of all consciousness. However, the flux and interaction between consciousness and being requires that the relation between subject and object, between part and whole, between particular and universal, must be grasped historically.


Critical theory, being a dialectical analysis is never ‘complete’ but, critical theorists argue, this does not exclude the possibility of truth. Truth is achieved through an analysis of ideology (and consequential critique) and a concomitant emphasis upon praxis as the means to the ultimate verification of truth.


There is no objective reality that social theorists can passively reflect upon: theory is intertwined with history — if a theory is correct, this will be indicated in history. Praxis is an historical, political and epistemological category. Truth inheres in and is a moment of correct practice and correct practices are identified in the praxis of autonomous emancipation. Autonomous emancipation is the creation of a rational society in which self-interest and competitive individualism are non existent, in which libidinal energy releases tension and satisfies human needs.


This perspective on history and practice as arbiters of truth has lead some commentators to suggest that critical theory is rather more idealist than it admits.


Adorno's contribution to critical theory

Adorno, a prominent member of the Frankfurt School, became director of the Institut in 1955. He was to have a significant effect on the understanding that critical theory achieves in regard to contemporary industrial society.

Adorno's main contribution was the examination of the nature of truth. Heavily influenced by Nietzsche, Adorno argued that the primary task of critical theory was 'an immanent critique of philosophy' This activity would lead, in Adorno's view, to the development of 'critical social consciousness' and to the necessary re-examination of truth as the dialectial relationship between subject and object. It is only in the critique of these traditional modes of thinking that the conditions for the necessary intellectual and social transformation can be realised.

According to Rose (1978), Adorno demonstrates the strength of traditional forces by showing that the 'formation of social reality' is in accordance with a principle that can be specified without reference to the meaning conferred on that reality by the individual (for example, social life) with the consequence that this principle produces an illusion that needs to be interpreted at the level of meaning. Adorno's point is that philosophy fails to provide an adequate critique of the process whereby the formation of social reality imposes meaning on the individual and should therefore be subjected to 'an immanent critique'.



analytical review

Bohman (2005) wrote:

Critical Theory has a narrow and a broad meaning in philosophy and in the history of the social sciences. “Critical Theory” in the narrow sense designates several generations of German philosophers and social theorists in the Western European Marxist tradition known as the Frankfurt School. According to these theorists, a “critical” theory may be distinguished from a “traditional” theory according to a specific practical purpose: a theory is critical to the extent that it seeks human emancipation, “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them” (Horkheimer 1982, 244). Because such theories aim to explain and transform all the circumstances that enslave human beings, many “critical theories” in the broader sense have been developed. They have emerged in connection with the many social movements that identify varied dimensions of the domination of human beings in modern societies. In both the broad and the narrow senses, however, a critical theory provides the descriptive and normative bases for social inquiry aimed at decreasing domination and increasing freedom in all their forms.

Critical Theory in the narrow sense has had many different aspects and quite distinct historical phases that cross several generations, from the effective start of the Institute of the Institute for Social Research in the years 1929–1930, which saw the arrival of the Frankfurt School philosophers and an inaugural lecture by Horkheimer, to the present. Its distinctiveness as a philosophical approach that extends to ethics, political philosophy, and the philosophy of history is most apparent when considered in light of the history of the philosophy of the social sciences. Critical Theorists have long sought to distinguish their aims, methods, theories, and forms of explanation from standard understandings in both the natural and the social sciences. Instead, they have claimed that social inquiry ought to combine rather than separate the poles of philosophy and the social sciences: explanation and understanding, structure and agency, regularity and normativity. Such an approach, Critical Theorists argue, permits their enterprise to be practical in a distinctively moral (rather than instrumental) sense. They do not merely seek to provide the means to achieve some independent goal, but rather (as in Horkheimer's famous definition mentioned above) seek “human emancipation” in circumstances of domination and oppression. This normative task cannot be accomplished apart from the interplay between philosophy and social science through interdisciplinary empirical social research (Horkheimer 1993). While Critical Theory is often thought of narrowly as referring to the Frankfurt School that begins with Horkheimer and Adorno and stretches to Marcuse and Habermas, any philosophical approach with similar practical aims could be called a “critical theory,” including feminism, critical race theory, and some forms of post-colonial criticism. In the following, Critical Theory when capitalized refers only to the Frankfurt School. All other uses of the term are meant in the broader sense and thus not capitalized. When used in the singular, “a critical theory” is not capitalized, even when the theory is developed by members of the Frankfurt School in the context of their overall project of Critical Theory.

It follows from Horkheimer's definition that a critical theory is adequate only if it meets three criteria: it must be explanatory, practical, and normative, all at the same time. That is, it must explain what is wrong with current social reality, identify the actors to change it, and provide both clear norms for criticism and achievable practical goals for social transformation. Any truly critical theory of society, as Horkheimer further defined it in his writings as Director of the Frankfurt School's Institute for Social Research, “has as its object human beings as producers of their own historical form of life” (Horkeimer 1993, 21). In light of the practical goal of identifying and overcoming all the circumstances that limit human freedom, the explanatory goal could be furthered only through interdisciplinary research that includes psychological, cultural, and social dimensions, as well as institutional forms of domination. Given the emphasis among the first generation of Critical Theory on human beings as the self-creating producers of their own history, a unique practical aim of social inquiry suggests itself: to transform contemporary capitalism into a consensual form of social life. For Horkheimer a capitalist society could be transformed only by becoming more democratic, to make it such that “all conditions of social life that are controllable by human beings depend on real consensus” in a rational society (Horkheimer 1982, 249–250). The normative orientation of Critical Theory, at least in its form of critical social inquiry, is therefore towards the transformation of capitalism into a “real democracy” in which such control could be exercised (Horkheimer 1982, 250). In such formulations, there are striking similarities between Critical Theory and American pragmatism.

The McGraw-Hill (2004) Sociological Theory site Glossary defines critical theory as:

In general, this refers to a theory of society developed with the intent to fundamentally change society. In particular, critical theory is often used to refer to the group of scholars associated with the Frankfurt school. (Neo-Marxian)

associated issues

Critical theory is not the same as critical social research, see Researching the Real World Section

related areas

See also

Critical social research

Frankfurt School



Researching the Real World Section


Bohman, J., 2005, 'Critical Theory' in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, first published 8 March 2005, available at , accessed 4 February 2013, still available 2 June 2019.

Horkheimer, M., 1982, Critical Theory, New York: Seabury Press.

Horkheimer, M., 1993, Between Philosophy and Social Science, Cambridge: MIT Press.

McGraw-Hill, 2004, Sociological Theory: Glossary , available at, accessed 14 May 2013, page not available 17 December 2016.

Rose, G., 1978, The Melancholy Science: An introduction to the thought of Theodor W. Adorno, London, Macmillan.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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